San Francisco Subway Guide: How to Ride the BART

Inside BART's new subway car. | Photo: Cheapnik

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This guide will let you in on how to use SF's BART subway system to explore and get around the city.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (simply known as BART) is San Francisco’s efficient subway system and it’s one of the most popular transport options in the bay area. It gets you from point A to B faster than taking a taxi, and it’s cheap, too. If you’re coming from the airport going to downtown SF this is probably the best way to get to the city – if you’re not taking a luxury limo, that is.

SF’s BART in a Nutshell

Unlike NYC’s extensive subway network which basically connects every nook and cranny of the city, SF’s BART’s route is a little bit different: BART basically connects the San Francisco Peninsula with Oakland, Berkeley, Fremont, San Jose, Walnut Creek, Dublin/Pleasanton and other cities in the East Bay.

This means that from SFO airport, BART passes only through major, central areas of downtown SF via Mission Street (16th and 24th Street Mission stations) and Market Street (Civic Center, Powell (near Union Square), Montgomery and Embarcadero stations) and then heads out on to cross Bay Bridge to serve areas beyond San Francisco.

Once you’re in San Francisco it’s very easy to walk to your destination if it’s somewhere in the vicinity or take the MUNI and/or cable car to get you to other neighborhoods. MUNI is basically SF’s public bus network that converts into subway or tram depending on the areas it’s serving, connecting the entire city efficiently, much like how NYC’s subway gets you around the city easily.

The point is, BART is the best way to get yourself from outside SF into SF and vice versa (as well as within San Francisco’s major thoroughfares Mission Street and Market Street).

BART Train Inside Subway Car
Photo: Cheapnik

How to Ride the BART Subway

Riding the BART is as easy as 1-2-3. It’s not overly complex or complicated like that of Tokyo’s, London’s or NYC’s. Yes you may fumble a bit when using the ticket vending machine or figuring out which car to ride, but once you’ve done it the first time or if you’ve hopped on to a subway before, it will be easy for you to figure things out.

Step 1: Plan your trip / route

Use this map of the BART network to help you visualize the system and find out where the nearest BART station is as well as which terminal you want to go to. (There’s also a huge information map that’s visibly posted in all BART stations and also inside each train car so you’ll never get lost in the system.)

BART Maps Inside Subway Train Cars
BART Maps Inside Subway Train Cars | Photo: Cheapnik

You can also use this handy dandy BART planner to plan your trip –  simply enter your location and your destination and it will tell you which line to take and the departure and arrival times of each trip.

Looking at the map of BART below, you’ll see that each line names describe the ultimate end destination – this is what you will see on the overhead display screens at the boarding platforms to help you figure out which car to take (more on this below).

The colors of each line below are generally to help distinguish between each when looking at the map, but BART and the people riding it do not really refer to the line names by their colors, instead they just call each line by its end destination.

BART System Map as of June 2020.

Figuring out BART routes

Let’s set the SFO Airport to downtown SF route as an example. Say you just arrived at SFO airport and you want to go to Powell Street station because it’s the closest to Union Square where your hotel is.

Looking at the map above you’ll see that the Antioch-SFO/Millbrae Line is the only line that passes through SFO and the line actually goes northbound to downtown San Francisco and ultimately at Powell Street station where you plan to go, so this means that once you’re at SFO BART station, just hop on to the train car that says “Antioch,” since this car with the final destination “Antioch” passes through downtown San Francisco.

Make sure that you do not hop on to the southbound train “Millbrae,” since this just takes you farther from your destination and you’ll have to ride another train going back in case there’s a mistake. In this case, there would just be a small distance difference in case you hop on to the wrong train, but if you look at the entire map, hopping on a train that goes at the wrong direction could cost you time if it took you time to realize this mistake.

Step 2: Find & go to the nearest BART station

Finding your nearest BART station is as easy as checking your smartphone’s Google Maps app and searching “BART station” and it’ll show you all the BART stations in your area.

Once you’re in the vicinity of a BART station it’s very easy to find its entrances – simply look for the BART logo and you’ll see next to it an entryway that looks like your usual subway station.

BART Entrance Powell Station
BART entrance at Powell Street Station | Photo: Cheapnik

Step 3: Purchase your BART fare

BART fares differ depending on where you’re currently at and your destination. Generally, the longer the trip is the more expensive your ride is going to be.

As an example, from SFO airport to Powell Street station it’ll cost you $9.65 for a one-way ride when using a Clipper card. As of writing it costs $4.20 for short rides and $18.50 for the longest routes.

Fare charts are posted at ticket vending machines in every BART station, and you can also use this fare calculator to find our what it’s going to cost you. Note that it’s possible to load your ticket more than your current intended fare for future use.

If your BART ticket is low on balance and is insufficient for you to be able to exit through the exit gates, do not worry because Addfare machines are available before each station’s exit gates where you can top up on your balance.

Just so you know, ticket vending machines accept credit and debit cards and cash in $1, $5, $10 and $20 increments only, so make sure you have change. If you’re coming from the airport with just hundreds and no change, you can have your bills broken at the currency exchange booth right at the arrival area if you ask nicely, that is.

BART Ticket Clipper
Photo: Cheapnik

Clipper vs BART Ticket

If it’s your first time riding the BART and/or if you do not already have a ticket, a regular BART ticket will be given to you at the ticket vending machine when you first make a fare purchase – this card you can use to top up for future trips with BART.

The regular BART ticket used to be the only way to ride with BART, however they’ve since introduced the Clipper card as a newer, better way to purchase and reload your BART fares because it is regionally accepted – meaning you can also use the same Clipper card you use at BART to ride at MUNI, SamTrans, CalTrain, Golden Gate Transit and Ferry, San Francisco Bay Ferry, and other transport companies in and round the SF Bay Area, unlike the BART ticket which you can only use to ride with BART, making it very convenient instead of stashing with you different transport cards.

It’s not only convenient and more environment friendly, having Clipper also saves you money on your trips: adult fares have a 50-cent per trip savings on BART, plus discounts on other transport services that use Clipper.

There is a one-time purchase charge of $3 per Clipper card which you can buy at BART stations. It may cost $3 upfront, but if you’re able to do 3 round trips then it already pays for itself and you enjoy the rest of the savings.

Step 4: Ride the correct train car

Figuring out which train car to ride with BART is very straightforward. Since each line names describe the ultimate end destination and you’ll see this on the overhead display screens at the boarding platforms to help you figure out which car to take, you will be pretty certain when you board the car that the route will stop by your desired destination.

Looking at the overhead sign in the picture below, this 10-car, 2-door BART subway car that just arrived in this station is bound for Antioch (end destination). Depending on which station you currently are, this means that this train will stop by all the stations (unless announced by train conductor) between your currently destination and Antioch which is its end destination.

If you’re really not sure or if you miss the train, do not worry because another car should arrive in a few minutes or so: on weekdays, each train runs every 15 minutes, while on weekends, they run every 20 minutes.

BART Subway Station Overhead Signs
Photo: Cheapnik

Also once you’re in the waiting platforms make sure you are waiting at the right side of the platform. Again, looking at the image above, the top sign (above the “Antioch” sign) says that that side is the correct waiting platform if you want to ride trains bound for end destinations Richmond, Antioch, Dublin/Pleasanton, and Warm Springs.

Step 5: Hop off when the train arrives at your destination

Once you’re on the moving train, the next thing to do is to make sure you hop off at the right station of your destination, which is very easy.

Inside the train there are announcements on the next station ans which stop the train is currently at. In addition to the audio guides, there are also visual guides when you look out the window at each station to help you figure out which station you’re currently at. If you’re riding the newer BART cars, electronic signs are available inside each car.

BART Civic Center Station Platform
If all else fails, just look outside each stop and you’ll see signs everywhere showing the current station. | Photo: Cheapnik

Also if you’re looking at the BART map on your smartphone or at the large map available inside every car, you’ll be able to monitor each stop and figure out if it’s already your station.

*There are times when issues, maintenance or repairs in cars or stations happen so expect delays and/or skipped cars / stations so make sure you listen to the announcements or look at the overhead signs for updates. If you’re lost/confused, you can always ask the BART personnel at the stations.

Things To Know Before Riding the BART

  • Make sure you have change because the ticket vending machines only accept cash in $1, $5, $10 & $20 denominations (those $50 & $100 bills don’t work here, unfortunately). The machine accepts debit and credit cards though if you’re into cards.
  • If you think you can make six BART trips or more, opt for the $3 Clipper card instead because it’ll pay for itself after six rides and then after that, you get $.50 discount on each BART ride which can definitely add up.
  • BART closes at midnight, or roughly around midnight. So make sure to take this into consideration when planning your trip. Going on a late night out in downtown SF? If you need to ride the BART to get home or to your hotel, make sure to wrap things up at around 11pm or you’ll risk taking an expensive taxi/Uber/Lyft just to get home.
  • If you need to bring a bike with you, know that bike racks and bike lockers are available at most BART stations. Also you can bring your bike with you inside the train car provided that you secure your bike at the assigned bike slot inside each car. If you ride during the rush hour, you might have troubles finding a slot in the car so plan your trip accordingly.
  • You can park for free at all BART stations on weekends and holidays that fall on a Friday or a Monday.

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